They came with the horror stories anybody who has ever tried to get a cheap flight out of Buffalo Niagara International Airport can tell. The difference was that they are elected officials with the power to do something about the woes of the city's air travelers.
Reps. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, and John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, were joined Monday by Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., chairman of the House Aviation subcommittee, at a public hearing on how to get better, cheaper air service for the area.
Frustrated airline passengers have allies in the Congress and Senate, Quinn noted. After all, House members travel as much as all but the most road-weary business people.
"One of the things that's helping us lobby is that there are 435 House members and 50 Senators who do a lot of traveling," he said. "They're experiencing the same horror stories that we're hearing from our constituents."
One of those constituents -- Mayor Masiello -- relayed a story that many Buffalo travelers can relate to, about how he helped relocate his daughter to the West Coast by car.
Masiello had to fly back home, but because of a significant difference in the price between a trip to Buffalo and a trip to Cleveland, he flew into Cleveland and had somebody drive him back to Buffalo.
"It was embarrassing that the mayor of Buffalo had to fly into Cleveland," he said.
Almost sheepishly, Quinn made a similar confession: that he had flown out of Cleveland for a personal trip to Chicago because a Buffalo-to-Chicago flight cost several hundred dollars more than the flight out of Cleveland.
Most of those who came to testify implored Duncan to seriously consider reinstituting some form of regulation on the airlines. Duncan said his subcommittee is reluctant to recommend that but will do so if airlines don't attempt to solve the problems of places like Buffalo.
"The best way to lower prices and improve service is to have true competition within any industry," the Knoxville Republican said. "But if you're not going to have effective competition, then we might have to come and do some things."
Buffalo has been more successful than many other cities in luring low-cost airlines like Shuttle America, Vanguard and AirTran into the market, and that has produced lower fares on some routes.
But in other markets, these savings have been temporary.
The larger airlines match the lower fares, effectively taking the business away from the smaller airlines, forcing them to leave the market. Once the small airlines go, the larger airlines bump their prices back up, a practice called predatory pricing. AirTran, for example, helped lower costs on flights between Columbus and Atlanta to an average of $114 in the third quarter of 1997. A year later, once AirTran had left that route, the fare had jumped to $182.
"I am deeply concerned that new carriers could be driven from our market if established carriers are permitted to do what they have done elsewhere -- offer substantially reduced fares to these same destinations temporarily, and then raise them again once they drive the new carrier out," LaFalce said.
LaFalce urged Congress to work with the federal Department of Transportation in issuing guidelines that would define and eliminate predatory pricing.
Businessman Patrick P. Lee, chairman and chief executive officer of Buffalo-based IMC, applauded Buffalo airport officials for attracting low-cost airlines but said that won't answer all the problems.
"A new airline (Vanguard) offering service to Chicago Midway Airport does not help the majority of business travelers who need O'Hare (Airport) as a transfer point to other flights," he said.